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Red-handed: protestors in front of Rep. Sweeney’s office in Clifton Park.

PHOTO: David King

‘D’ as in Dissatisfied

Protesters let Congressman Sweeney know how they feel about Medicare Part D—and are taunted by Sweeney’s supporters

“This should not be,” said Salem Zullo as she stood in front of Congressman John Sweeney’s Clifton Park office, waiting for her group’s protest to start. “My girlfriend’s granddaughter has leukemia. There’s a little mayonnaise jar sitting on counter by a cash register in a convenience store. Haven’t you seen those jars—‘Help a little girl get kidney surgery’? Why are we begging people for money for surgery for a baby, but we’re giving millionaires back their money and spending billions on the war? There is something wrong.”

At a little past 4 PM last Thursday (May 11), cars slowly began arriving at Sweeney’s office. Elderly people timidly got out of their vehicles and introduced one another on a small, grass-covered island between parking spaces. “Are you from MoveOn?” one woman inquired. “No, but we’re here for the protest,” responded another. A woman held out a plastic bag and asked, “Would anyone care for some red gloves?” “Oh, red gloves? I would love some,” came a response over the sounds of latex gloves being pulled over flesh.

Around 20 protestors gathered to hold their “caught red-handed” gathering and to deliver an oversized copy of a check for $31,700 dollars to Sweeney’s office. That’s the amount they say Sweeney took from pharmaceutical companies. They gathered knowing that the deadline to register for Medicare Part D was only three days away, and that seniors who don’t understand or who aren’t able to register by that date will face higher premiums. For participants who register after the deadline, the cost of the plan will increase one percent for every month they fail to sign up.

MoveOn.org member and event organizer Kathy Manley acknowledged that Sweeney has signed onto a bill that would put off the premium increases until November, but said she thinks the bill is only a cosmetic device and will never come to a vote. “The penalties will still be there,” she said. Manley said the group wants more than a delay; they want Sweeney “to really fix the program.” She said the program is extremely costly, that it does not allow the government to negotiate on drug prices, and that it simultaneously confuses and penalizes seniors.

As protesters moved away from the offices in preparation for a dramatic entrance, Sweeney supporters gathered where the protestors had just stood. The Sweeney contingent—men, mostly tall, middle-aged, bald or with large mustaches—stood with their arms folded, anticipating the protesters’ arrival. Edward Kramer, a Sweeney supporter and senior-citizens’ advocate from Clifton Park, brought a framed pen, the one used by Lyndon Johnson in 1965 to sign Medicare into law. Kramer insisted that instead of protesting, both sides should be out helping seniors understand and prepare to meet the impending deadline.

Chris Nedwick, a representative of Sweeney’s office, handed out a press release titled, “Sweeney To MoveOn.org: Do Your Homework.” The release pointed out that Sweeney has co-sponsored legislation to extend the deadline. Nedwick then stood tapping his feet, waiting for the protestors.

The protestors, with their red hands and oversized check, made their presentation to Nedwick. Nedwick stood politely if not a bit nervously listening to and speaking with members of the group. Then things got nasty.

Clifton Park GOP Chairman Michael Lisuzzo stood with other Sweeney supporters and, over the sound of a distant weed-wacker, unloaded quips at the protestors. “Where are you from? MoveOn or whatever, or PETA? Whatever, they are all the same thing.” Lisuzzo said he had come because “There are two sides to every story.”

“I wish they would come mow over here,” one Sweeney supporter quietly remarked to another. As the protestors tried to continue with their procession, one of Lisuzzo’s companions demanded, “Could you please compare and contrast the pros and cons of the current Medicare plan with the Clinton health care plan?” Shouting erupted, drowning out the sound of blades hacking at grass.

Calm returned for a minute as Salem Zullo began to tell her story, the story of her medical nightmare and that of her 71-year-old sister: How the health-care system has knocked her for a loop as she suffered through back and heart problems, how her sister’s battle with cancer has left her penniless and with a drug company unwilling to pay for the only medicine that might save her. “One day you will be 65 and you’ll retire and buy a little house and think, ‘I’m all set,’ “ she said. “God help you if you’re old and one day a catastrophic illness hits you. You’ll be where we are. We’re selling our house. We can’t live here anymore. I have six stents in my heart. Do you know what that is? My doctor says I need surgery, so I say OK, let’s do it, but he tells me, ‘You’re not critical enough!’ ”

“Why do they always have to scream? It goes to show their character,” a Sweeney supporter complained. Others interrupted to ask about seniors who are left bankrupt by medical emergencies. “Well, why didn’t they save?” a Sweeney aide answered. “There is such a thing as personal responsibility, you know!” Another informed the crowd: “Well, I know a senior who had trouble with the Medicare program, but they actually took the initiative to get themselves some help with it.”

Manley said she didn’t expect such a response from the Sweeney crowd. “Last time we were there, they invited us in and talked to us,” she recalled.

Quickly, both groups began shouting each other down. The protestors paused to tear up their oversized check, and then the shouting erupted again. “All this energy, these 30 people, could be out helping seniors instead of . . . ” Edward Kramer lamented as his voice and the sounds of angry debate melded with the whine of the weed whacker’s steady approach.

—David King

dking@metroland.net


What a Week

You Hear Us. We Hear You.

Last week, USA Today reported that three major phone companies turned over records of millions of phone calls made by average U.S. citizens to the National Security Agency. Since then, denials have been issued by two of the companies named: Verizon and BellSouth. President Bush has denied that the government listens in on domestic calls. However, yesterday (Wednesday), Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said that two judges on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (a tribunal that approves surveillance warrants) were told of the broad domestic spying programs after 9/11. An aide later claimed Hatch’s comments should not be taken as confirmation of the domestic phone-call monitoring programs.

Farm Check

The Senate has proposed spending $4 billion on assistance to farmers stricken by harsh weather and high fuel prices. Bills that give aid to farms are usually very popular during election years, but apparently, not during this one. President Bush has threatened to veto the bill because the cost would be tacked onto a bill whose cost is already running quite high: the bill that would fund the war in Iraq and hurricane recovery.

Reality Has a Liberal Bias

“I don’t really believe those polls,” Laura Bush told Fox News on Sunday (May 14). Recent polls have put Bush at his lowest point of popularity in five years and around the lowest of any president in the past 50. Last week, the Harris Poll put Bush’s approval rating at 29 percent. “As I travel around the United States, I see a lot of appreciation for him,” said Laura Bush. “A lot of people come up to me and say, ‘Stay the course.’”

Pay for the Raise

Last year, late at night, without any public hearing or floor debate, the Pennsylvania Legislature voted to give itself a nice little raise. A 54-percent raise. Lawmakers later repealed the raise after citizen outcry, but the damage had likely already been done. On Tuesday, 12 incumbents were handed their walking papers by voters.



Peace ride: Jonathan Tasini stops in Albany on his state-traversing bike trek.

PHOTO: Joe Putrock

Long Hard Road

Clinton opponent rides his bike through New York state to launch his senatorial campaign and protest the war in Iraq

On Tuesday, labor activist and Demo- cratic senatorial candidate Jonathan Tasini arrived in Albany’s Capitol Park under overcast skies. He arrived on a bike he had ridden from Hudson, where he had been the day before. The day before that he had been in Kingston; the day before that, Beacon; the day before that, Nyack; the day before that, New Rochelle. He has ridden his bike to all of these six stops, and when his ride comes to an end in Buffalo at the state Democratic convention he will have ridden through 13 more. Tasini may be preparing himself for an even greater challenge, as this is how he has decided to launch his bid to take the Democratic senatorial nomination away from one of the country’s brightest political stars, Hillary Clinton. On his Ride for Peace, Tasini is not just taking on Clinton—he is also taking on the war in Iraq, as he carries with him petitions to end the conflict there. And if Tasini had had his way, things might have been just a bit more daunting.

“I wanted to walk across the state,” he told reporters from under his big, blue bike helmet as he stood over his bike in the downtown Albany park. “Biking was a compromise” he made with his staff, he reported.

That is not to say biking has been easy. Tasini said there have been two blown-out tires and at least one spill. He did, however, add that there has been some sort of karmic support for his ride, noting that “they have forecast rain” for most of the tour’s stops, but the clouds have stored their moisture long enough for his events to finish.

Spare tires and petitions aren’t the only things Tasini has brought with him on his tour. He has brought hope for individuals such as Jeanne Finley, a local activist and Tasini supporter who says Hillary Clinton is not representing the values of most Democrats in the state. Clinton has grown notorious for not making her exact stance on the Iraq war known, although she did vote to go to war in the first place. Finley asserts that polls show up to 65 to 70 percent of New York voters are opposed to the war. “There is a majority who wants the war to end and wants the troops home now,” she says, “And we’re not being represented. Mrs. Clinton is a star and a celebrity. There is a fait accompli. She is the senator, and she will always be the senator, but we’re now feeling enfranchised to have a candidate saying ‘End the war now!’ ”

Tasini has been fond of quoting Senator Paul Wellstone in asking voters to “vote for what you believe in.” He says he has had the chance to meet voters who agree with what he believes. “There is a hunger out there,” he said on Tuesday.

Tasini also brought with him a list of costs, the costs he says Albany County has paid for the Iraq war. These costs include the lives of soldiers lost in the war: Dominic J. Sacco, Timothy J. Moshier, and David M. Fisher. He also notes the financial cost to the county: $407.4 million, which he says could be used to pay for full university scholarships, affordable housing, health-care coverage, teachers and public-safety officers.

As Tasini’s conference wrapped up, a man in a construction hat taking his lunch break with his work group asked Finley, “What’s this about?” Finley explained that Tasini is running against Clinton. “Mrs. Clinton? I’m all set,” the worker spat back hastily. Finley assured the man her candidate was running against Clinton and handed him a flyer. “See where it says, ‘Send our troops home now?’ I think that is disrespectful!” said the man in the hard hat. Finley tried to respond, but it was too late. “Maybe if you opened up your fucking eyes you’d see the good shit we’re doing over there!” he shouted. Finley was joined by another campaign worker, and quickly the construction workers dispersed.

Then, just as Tasini had said happened on his other stops, the clouds gave out and it started to rain.

—David King

dking@metroland.net


between the lines

What’s in a Name?

The Times Union buys the naming rights to Albany County’s arena, raising questions of journalistic ethics and media influence

It’s an irony so delicious only a novelist with a jaundiced eye on the media might have dreamed it up, but, again, truth is stranger than fiction. One of the Times Union’s proudest—and most impressive—achievements over the last two decades was the dogged coverage of the construction of the Pepsi, née Knickerbocker, Arena. They ferreted out financial corruption that led to a federal prosecution, which subsequently landed the Albany county executive and the arena’s architect in the slammer. Now, the Hearst Corporation-owned daily has purchased the naming rights to the arena, which, come Jan. 1, 2007, will be known as the Times Union Center.

Reached by telephone, ex-Times Union columnist and managing editor Dan Lynch explained: “This is fairly common around the country.”

He’s right. From Florida to California, a number of daily newspapers have bought naming rights to sports arenas and performing-arts centers. Lynch is less than enthusiastic about the trend, however: “I presume it has some promotional value that, as a recovering journalist, I’m not happy with.”

TU reporter Carol DeMare broke the story on May 4. The paper will pay Albany County $350,000 in cash per year, or $3.5 million over the 10-year life of the deal.

This, by the way, was the minimum amount the county had been looking for. A long open-bidding period had attracted exactly zero bids. When the process was reopened, The Business Review reported, only Citizens Bank and the Times Union pursued the naming rights.

Why would the Times Union be interested? Wags, including blogger Albany Eye, have pointed out the obvious: By the TU’s own estimate, their daily circulation was down 2.7 percent over the last six months. Worse, Sunday circulation was down 4.4 percent. Part of this decline can be explained by bad local demographics and the woeful state of the upstate economy; as Lynch drolly noted, “It’s kind of hard not to grow [circulation] in Tucson.” (Lynch also pointed out, however, that circulation did increase when he was managing editor.)

The simplest explanation for the deal is marketing. Having an arena named after it gives a corporation seemingly endless publicity—plus, all the local media outlets have to, in effect, give the TU free advertising. (And, from anecdotal, off-the-record evidence, some of the local media outlets are not pleased about this.)

At the press conference announcing the deal, Times Union publisher Mark Aldam explained it this way: “We are taking one of what will be many steps toward becoming a more diversified media company.”

What does that mean? The best clue is in Joel Stanshenko’s May 4 story in The Business Review: “Aldam said the Times Union wants to use its Web site as the chief Internet location for information on the Albany-area entertainment and hospitality scene, whether the events are at the arena or elsewhere.” You see, once the TU name “is on the building,” Internet sales for arena events will only be available through the TU Web site.

The deal raises a number of interesting ethical questions. In his regular Saturday column, TU vice-president and editor Rex Smith addressed the question of whether this will affect the paper’s news coverage of the arena: “I have to fall back on the old bromide that the proof of the pudding is in the tasting: You will know the independence of our journalism by what we produce, and if there’s any favoritism, I’m sure readers will quickly point it out.”

No doubt. Readers should pay equal attention to the ads. Presumably, the managers of the Times Union Center will continue to spread their advertising dollars around local-media outlets in the same proportions they do now. (Presumably.) Also, there is the issue of event sponsorship: Will the TU sponsor/cosponsor more events at the Times Union Center and fewer at other regional venues?

“Journalists,” Smith noted, “are fierce about protecting the independence of our reporting.”

Some Times Union journalists, in fact, are fierce in their unhappiness with the deal; it’s hard to be enthusiastic about corporate laying out $350 grand a year when there’s a hiring freeze in effect.

In the final analysis, Dan Lynch is not convinced that buying naming rights is worth it: “The way to make your newspaper grow is to provide readers important information they can’t get anywhere else.”

“I wish them good luck with it,” Lynch added.

—Shawn Stone


Overheard

Overheard:

“Delaware Avenue’s haunted.”

“Delaware Avenue?”

“Yeah. Something bad happened there.”

—CDTA Route 18 bus, in the midst of a discussion of haunted houses.

 

Overheard:“Question his manhood.”

—Ralph Nader, at a press conference Tuesday supporting Alice Green, in response to a question about how Green could convince Mayor Jerry Jennings to participate in a debate.



Loose Ends

On April 27, crews from Clough Harbour & Associates, who were hired by the city of Albany, tore through pieces of the Pine Bush Preserve with bulldozers. The crews were doing exploratory work for a proposed landfill expansion [·The Garbage Burden,· April 27, 2006]. Trees were damaged, grass was uprooted, and trails were turned into dirt roads. The Nature Conservancy insists that the lands are protected because they have been dedicated to the preserve. The Nature Conservancy wrote to Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Denise Sheehan, Attorney General Elliot Spitzer and Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings, demanding that further action in the Pine Bush be halted, and asked for the DEC and the attorney general to launch an investigation into whether the city had, in fact, violated the law. The Nature Conservancy also asked for the damaged Pine Bush to be restored. The city has claimed the action may have been premature, but ·not necessarily illegal.· Common Council member Dominick Calsolaro (Ward 1) has said that he feels ·betrayed by the city.· In a letter to local newspapers, Calsolaro said, ·Until the city administration can prove that they can be trusted and that all legal and proper protocols will be followed, I will not support any further action to expand the landfill in the Albany Pine Bush Preserve.·



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